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For God's Sake

The impressive Frailty and the crass Sweetest Thing.

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Frailty, the mostly impressive directorial debut from cult-favorite actor Bill Paxton (A Simple Plan, One False Move, and forever remembered as the asshole older brother Chet in the otherwise forgettable Weird Science), cuts against the grain of most modern, multiplex horror films, relying more on atmosphere than on gore and being more grave than groovy, more Sixth Sense than Scream. In other words, it's a horror film geared toward literate adults. In this manner, it also has a lot in common with Guillermo del Toro's recent Spanish import, The Devil's Backbone, which also found the locus of horror in the mundane acts of men and undercut its supernatural sheen with a pointed political and historical subtext.

The film begins, after an opening credit scroll of background-providing newspaper clippings, with an X-Files-like title insertion introducing an FBI office in Dallas. A young man calling himself Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey) has driven a stolen ambulance late at night to the mostly deserted office building, insisting that he speak to the agent (Powers Boothe) in charge of investigating a serial murder case known as the "God's hand" killings. Meiks tells the skeptical agent that he knows who the killer is and begins to relay his story, with most of the film told as a flashback. This creepy framing device gives the Southern gothic horror film an appropriate "campfire ghost story" ambience.

Fenton's childhood at first seems perfectly normal. He and younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) live in an old caretaker's house behind the town rose garden with their aw-shucks mechanic dad (Paxton). The kids' mother died giving birth to Adam, and now the three live together in what Paxton shows as a hypernormal world. When dad comes home from work, 12-year-old Fenton (played by Matt O'Leary in one of the most convincing child performances in recent memory) already has dinner on the table, and the family atmosphere is warm, loving, and relaxed.

But the family's world is shaken when dad wakes the boys in the middle of the night and tells them, very matter-of-factly, that he has been visited by an angel and that the family's mission in life from here on out is to "destroy demons," these demons masquerading as regular people, with a list of names provided to dad by the angels. The children are then swept into a series of abductions and murders of, as a horrified Fenton knows, innocent people, though his younger brother, more devout and eager to please his father, embraces the task.

Paxton's direction here is sure-handed and occasionally inspired. This lean, arty thriller abjures unnecessary gore (though this doesn't stop some scenes from being extremely unpleasant) and features some quiet, exquisite scenes, especially when Adam is forced to give Fenton some water through a hole in the backyard shed/dungeon, where he has been locked until he finds religion. Another coup for Paxton is his own performance. Lesser films would have presented this character as a monster or a hammy Bible-thumper, approximating Robert Mitchum's psychotic preacher in The Night of the Hunter. But Paxton presents the character as a loving, normal father who sincerely believes that he's doing God's work and is patient and understanding (to a degree) of his children's difficulty in coping with their difficult tasks.

So, for a while at least, Paxton has crafted a gripping, accomplished film about how otherwise good and decent people can do utterly horrible things and about how dangerous derangements can be handed down from generation to generation. He's also brave enough to tie this critique explicitly to religious fundamentalism -- until, that is, an unexpected twist (you can see the first twist coming; it's the second twist that messes everything up) throws the film's tone and "message" into disarray, taking the bite out of whatever commentary the film might otherwise express about fundamentalism or people forcing extreme beliefs onto others.

Written by Brent Hanley, Frailty is clearly the product of the new school of over-busy screenplay gimmickry, in which tricking and surprising the audience are more important than narrative or thematic coherence. Some of these films have worked (I'd vote Memento and The Sixth Sense), but most of the time they seemed too pleased by their own cleverness and would have worked more effectively if played straight (Vanilla Sky, Wild Things, Fight Club, even The Usual Suspects). The oh-so-clever twist of Frailty throws the film into the latter group, but there's enough good leading up to it to make the film worth seeing and to make one anxious to see if Paxton can improve on this initial offering. -- Chris Herrington

There's a scene in The Sweet-est Thing in which heroine Christina (Cameron Diaz) and her best friend Courtney (Christina Applegate), after a series of Lucy-and-Ethel-like mishaps (albeit soft-porn Lucy-and-Ethel-like mishaps), purchase two gaudy outfits to attend a wedding. One of the outfits is tight and bright pink, the other tight and bright blue. The women feel conspicuous, though neither seems to have a clue that their original outfits, one pink and tight and cut up the back, the other turquoise and showing a square mile of cleavage, were just as attention-grabbing. And that, friends, is the single shred of honest irony in the whole movie.

So maybe that pronouncement isn't all-the-way fair. Christina crashes that wedding to find a guy she has just met and fallen in love with. That guy, unbeknownst to her, is the groom. And what about the title? There's not a thing sweet about this romantic comedy. It's more like nachos, the ones with the 100 percent man-made cheese. And though the Farrelly Brothers have nothing to fear, The Sweetest Thing is crude and so crass as to be an art form. It is, unapologetically, what it is. And if it's nachos you want, get the nachos.

For director Roger Kumble and screenwriter Nancy M. Pimental, naughty must be listed on their résumés. Kumble directed the cult hit Cruel Intentions, a teen version of Dangerous Liaisons, while Pimental wrote for brazenly bratty cartoon South Park. The jokes about fake boobs, laundry-day panties, and other unmentionables bounce in at a steady pace, while the focus of Kumble and Pimental's most lascivious attention is third friend Jane (Selma Blair). Jane is put through an obstacle course that involves a semen-stained dress and her priest, a boink with a man in a plush, purple elephant suit, and, most unfortunately, an emergency with genital jewelry.

Somewhere in The Sweetest Thing is the plot in which Christina goes for the man and lets go of the defenses she's set up to never, ever be serious about anything. But, really, this movie is about being beautiful and young and having fun. Back to that scene where Christina and Courtney are trying on the clothes. Time for a movie montage! they declare, and so, for a couple of minutes, they mock the staple of movie time-filler, a two-minute-or-so song and dance. Christina and Courtney parade around in different outfits. At one point, Courtney reenacts the scene in which Julia Roberts gets her hand clapped by a jewelry box in Pretty Woman. Courtney as Julia laughs hysterically and maniacally. And you know something? When Roberts sets off into one of her trademark laughs, she does seem kind of crazy. -- Susan Ellis

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